The state legislature is considering a number of directions for criminal justice reform. The purpose of this series of posts is to create a repository of relevant background data and to surface that data for vetting. Comments adding facts and new data sources will be especially appreciated.
Basic Crime and Incarceration Statistics
- Incarceration in Massachusetts started to climb after crime surged.
- The Massachusetts Legislature regularly enacts criminal penalty increases.
- Legislative penalty changes contributed only modestly to the prison population run-up.
- Growth in the lifer population has helped keep the prison population high.
- Violent offenses account for over half of the prison population.
- House of correction trends have broadly paralleled state prison trends.
- The house of correction population is less violent than the state prison population.
- Massachusetts has a lower incarceration rate than other states.
- Both crime and incarceration are concentrated in poverty areas.
- Incarceration rates vary by race/ethnicity.
- Drug offenses account for a higher fraction of Hispanic incarcerations.
My personal takeaways from these basic statistics are:
- Incarceration rates have risen sharply over the past few decades and remain troublingly high, especially in communities of poverty and color.
- Legislative policy changes have probably not been the primary drivers of that incarceration growth.
- To reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system in communities of poverty and color, drug sentencing policy changes will help, but we also need to look more broadly at the whole correctional process (and also keep working on fundamentals like education, jobs and housing).
Statistics about Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses
- Most drug arrests do not result in conviction, much less incarceration.
- Among drug incarcerations, mandatories of 5+ years account for only 8% of person-years sentenced.
- Progress already made in 2012 reduces the potential impact of repealing mandatories.
- The average sentence impact of repealing mandatories is likely to be modest.
- School zone charges are dropped in over 95% of cases.
- Mandatory sentences disproportionately impact minorities.
My personal takeaways from these statistics on mandatory minimums are:
- Repealing the drug mandatories will have very modest impact on the overall incarceration rate in Massachusetts — this reinforces the previous conclusion that we need a broader agenda.
- The disproportionate impact of drug charges on minorities and the risk of arbitrary application, especially as to the school zone (and perhaps the 2d offense charge), do make repeal important anyway.
I’m glad you referenced poverty and the lack of education as critical issues. The criminal justice system has a role here. Quality education, job training and job placement need to accompany incarceration and be available to ex-offenders after release. The state had a successful inter-agency initiative (the Comprehensive Offender Employment Resource services program) that was begun in 1978 but was terminated by Governor Weld who famously said that he wanted prisoners “breaking rocks” . . . . Keep up the great work!
I agree with your takeaways. The courts primarily regulate the poor. But then the poor, partly because they are poor, commit the crimes which police deal with. The crimes that rich people commit are fewer and more complicated. So, my solution is to make justice less delayed and the punishment fit the crime – a shorter incarceration, fines, meaningful community service, temporary deprivation of the right to drive, deprivation of TV/cell phone – juvenile perhaps but remove the entertainment value of modern day toys.
Yes. We can’t do nothing in response to crime. We have to respond — let people know what is not acceptable and protect the public. But we also don’t want to crush people who make mistakes.
Cut way back on “priviledges” and “rigts” granted to all prisoners. Because they are in prison, they should only get 3 sq. meals a day–PERIOD. It worked years ago. Time incarcerated was HARD and helped keep prisoners from committing more crimes when they got out, so THEY WOULD NOT WANT TO BE BACK IN. Today, they have it so easy, some find it better on the INSIDED than out and keep on getting back in. Where has our COMMON SENSE GONE?
Gordy, I think it’s common sense and very consistent with religious traditions to help people get back up on their feet.
This is a serious question and one which has been bothering me for quite some time. I have firsthand knowledge that many correctional officers deal drugs, cells, and cigarettes in the prisons. I have knowledge that some of them are protected by those who may benefit from the profits. This is a very large business and very profitable. I know this firsthand because I had one of them arrested. Due to my findings I have interviewed former prisoners extensively in my quest to find the percentage of these unethical officers who engage in these activities. I’ve spoken to both men and women, young and old, some reformed and some not. What I’ve learned is the percentage of those who engage in these activities is higher than what I imagined it would be. I’m guessing it would be hard to assist someone with coming clean while incarcerated if there are rogue elements among the good supplying it to them. Is there or do you foresee any future systems put in place to deter such activities? Such as a narcotics dog located in the main area where ALL employees of the prison enter? I would think this is relatively inexpensive for such an important issue. It’s bigger than you know and the drugs are getting inside. Thanks.
WIth mandatory minimum sentences offenders are unlikely to participate in programs which will help them upon release because these offenders are not eligible for good time. Because these offenders have not participated in programs they are not prepared for release and may be more likely to reoffend.
Yes, we need to give more prisoners access to programs.
There was another New Yorker article on the broader aspects of criminal justice reform. Well worth reading. And yes better education, and more JOBS for young adults would be helpful:
Suggestion One: Put more reading and math specialists in the early education grades to provide a firm foundation.
Suggestion Two: Institute a broad collaborative coalition with State, local communities and businesses to develop meaningful long term jobs.
Yes, that was good article. For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the link.
A few more questions to ask. Will. They revolve mostly around drug use and mental illness.
What is the recidivism rate?
How many prisoners who return to prison are drug users with crimes fueled by substance abuse?
How successful are substance abuse programs? (I’ll try to find out.)
How many people enter the criminal justice system with mental illness?
Does the increase in the prison population parallel the demise of mental health hospitals and lack of community services that were supposed to take care of people with mental illness?
The five year recidivism rate out of most facilities is in the 50%+ range. Most of that happens early.
At the state prison level, violent crimes pre-dominate. We tend not to excuse those regardless of substance involvement. At the House of Corrections level, there are more property crimes, which may more forgiveable and are often related to substance addiction.
Mental illness depends on where you draw the cut off — all of us have some mental illness — but a substantial portion have major mental illness. I recall hearing numbers in the 10 to 25% range, but I’d welcome contributions on firming those numbers up. There is a lot of research out there and I’d welcome help in summarizing it.
There is a relationship between deinstitutionalization and the prison population. Sadly, some have worried that if we cut the prison population, we’ll just be doing the same thing all over again.
Ok, I was thinking that to really understand the increased numbers of people in the criminal justice system since 1965, one needs to subtract the number of people who joined the criminal justice system after the closing of state mental hospitals. I wrote to June Binney, JD, Director of the Criminal Justice Program under NAMI Mass and her assistant, Annabel Lane, LCSW at the Criminal Diversion Project. June thinks that though “minorities are way overrepresented in the criminal justice system, they tend to be under diagnosed with mental illness”. She didn’t know of any studies that show the breakdown of MI diagnosis by race. These numbers must exist somewhere. (I’ll keep looking and I hope others will too.)
I did learn from her office that 31% of people in MA state correctional facilities receive mental health services and 50% of people in MA county jails and houses of corrections receive them. In the Mass Department of Corrections 2014 Prison Population Trends report, Hampden County Correctional Center is said to be a national model. 30%-35% of their population receives mental health services, with community agencies providing some of the health services to inmates, so that there is continuity of care when people enter back into the community — maintaining that relationship with the provider has proven to reduce recidivism rates to around 25%.
So, my takeaway is that, in addition to providing job skills and drug counseling, it’s essential to have mental health services that will help a significant group affected by MI currently in jail and prisons (people of all races, some undiagnosed) to manage their symptoms and find a meaningful life for themselves in the larger community.
Thank you for this additional insight. I completely agree with your takeaway.
it seems that the bigger isssue is the racial imbalance of arrests and that if convicted the difficulty of employment for often very small infractions that whites are not convicted of.
also I understood there are more issues in the county court system than the state system. can you talk more about that.
Yes, check out this part of the series on how the state compares to county correctional system.
This topic (criminal justice reform) has obviously been popular in the last year or so and I agree that it needs to be investigated.
However, the increase in prison populations seems to correlate with the rate of violent crime steadily dropping since 1990 or so. If you want the statistics on that, ask and I’ll post them, but they’re pretty easy to find.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at prison reform, but at the same time we had pretty lax sentencing standards in the 70s and we don’t want to return to the violent crime levels of the that period. We should understand why violent crime rates have dropped like they have as part of this.
Right, the data published in this series does show that crime fell after incarceration increased. But most people feel that many factors had to do with that fall. The question we need to ask is how can we preserve order without locking people for so long or in such numbers.
Good point and make good logical sense.
I am all for the human liberty, but not so much for the criminals benefit at the cost of law binding citizens.
Enough for the push of lowering Incarceration rate( especially from a racial preference point of view). Shame on Obama to push on this.
Is there any way to get stats on diversity of staff at prisons, in parole and probation and prosecutors?
What about stats about the variety and value of programs offered to inmates. From what I have seen, most facilities list multiple programs for inmates, but in many, the programs no longer exist or are poorly done
Great question. Diversity stats statewide would be hard to come by because there are so many entities involved, but there is clearly less diversity in the staff than in the clientele.
We are working on getting more stats on programs, waitlists, etc. This something we want to get a handle on.
What about the biggest offenders? Altered cars to sound like they have muffler problems and especially loud mortorcycles? !
Sen. B., very very happy to see your website thru a tip by a senate colleague, esp’y some attn. to the far bigger but 3rd rail issues for “mass (& MA, too) incarc’n,” i.e. far more than the low-hanging fruit (that I’ve been fighting for 4 decades), drug mm’s; e.g. your link to the Mauer-Cole piece. I assume you’ve also seen stuff by:
•John Pfaff (e.g. Wash-Post op-ed m,7/27/15; & the graphic linked on 7/22/15, NYT: “Critics of Solitary Confinement Are Buoyed as Obama Embraces Their Cause.”);
•& Bruce Western (e.g. great MassInc & NAS rpts); & see also
Is Smart on Crime an idea whose time has arrived? Time — & lots of effort, & maybe some consciousness-raising — will tell.
Marty Rosenthal (MACDL)
Marty, thank you for these links and for your years of attention to these issues!
This is a serious question and one which has been bothering me for quite some time.
I have firsthand knowledge that many correctional officers deal drugs, cells, and cigarettes in the prisons. I have knowledge that some of them are protected by those who may benefit from the profits.
This is a very large business and very profitable. I know this firsthand because I had one of them arrested. Due to my findings I have interviewed former prisoners extensively in my quest to find the percentage of these unethical officers who engage in these activities.
Over the last 9 years I’ve spoken to both men and women, young and old, some rehabilitated and some not.
What I’ve learned is the percentage of the guards who engage in these illegal activities is higher than I imagined.
I’m guessing it would be hard to assist someone with coming clean while incarcerated if there are rogue elements among the good guards fueling their addictions.
Is there or do you foresee any future systems put in place to deter such activities?
I feel placing a narcotics dog located at the main entrance where ALL employees of the prison have to enter would be a good idea and relatively inexpensive.
This is an important issue and bigger than you know. The drugs are getting inside the prisons and profits are being made. Thanks.
This is a very serious concern. Why don’t you call me on my cell, 617-771-8274, so we can discuss how to respond.
I’ve been reviewing some of the documents of the CSG Justice Center’s scope of services document that was submitted to the working group you co-chair last month. If I understand the justice reinvestment process correctly, one of the ideas is to find space to re-invest resources that would otherwise have gone to corrections and use them in programs or services that reduce recidivism and criminality in the first place. I highly salute the concept.
I work in the sexual assault prevention world, and one of the topics I didn’t see discussed substantially in the initial report is the effects of sexual or domestic violence, or trauma more broadly, on criminality and recidivism. Is the working group going to be examining programs that work with incarcerated people who were previously victims of things like DV and sexual assault? Is it looking into the effectiveness of whatever programs the county and DOC are running to satisfy the Prison Rape Elimination Act? I don’t have the research in front of me, but I assume there is some kind of link between trauma and recidivism.
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